Caring for your loved one with dementia can become more and more difficult as the disease progresses. For some caregivers, the big difficulty may come when your loved one is having personal hygiene challenges. For example, your loved one may wear the same clothes over and over, even if they’re dirty. They may forget or refuse to take baths. They may not brush their teeth or comb their hair.
“Poor hygiene and grooming can be embarrassing for you and your loved one, but more importantly, it can pose serious health issues,” says Andrea Campisi, Marketing and Admissions Director of The Reutlinger Community, a Continuing Care Retirement Community in Danville, CA. “Not bathing, for example, can lead to odors as well as skin issues that can cause infections. Not brushing teeth leads to poor mouth health, which can lead to abscesses, cavities and other issues that lead to more serious health problems, especially with your loved one’s weakened immune system.”
As with most things related to dementia, says Andrea, the challenge is balancing your loved one’s needs with the changing reality of the situation. “Instead of focusing on everything that should be done, focus instead on what must be done. Is it necessary for your loved one to bathe each day as long as they’re practicing good hygiene overall? Or is having a routine comforting to your loved one? You’ll have to work with your knowledge of your loved one and figure out what is the best option for you both.”
Common Hygiene and Grooming Issues
Because of the way dementia affects the brain, someone with the disease can become confused about simple, everyday things that seem like second nature to us. Showering may become terrifying. Mirrors can cause agitation and anxiety. This can be due to a loss of recognition, loss of depth perception and being overwhelmed with tasks.
“Understanding why your loved one is acting the way he is will help you better overcome challenges and find a solution that keeps everyone safe, clean and healthy,” says Andrea. “Your patience, understanding and positive attitude will be the biggest tool to help you successfully navigate your loved one’s discomfort.”
While many of us enjoy being fresh and clean, bath time can be a terrifying experience to someone with dementia. It’s cold and slippery, with hard floors and sharp edges. Mirrors can be disorienting, and water falling from the showerhead may appear as broken glass raining down upon them. They may feel anxious about a lack of privacy or are afraid of falling.
- Tips for making bath time more pleasant: Think about your loved one’s needs and make the room as safe, comforting and calm for them as possible. Make sure the air temperature is warm enough (even if it means you’re sweating), and be sure that pointy edges and hard floors are softened with non-slip mats or protective towels. Use a hand-held showerhead, and let your loved one know what you’re going to do before you do it. Allow him or her to do as much of the bathing process as possible. If privacy is an issue, use a light towel or washcloth to cover body parts, and use robes and wraps to give your loved one some dignity. Keep the room well-lit, and play calming music if that helps.
Dressing poses a lot of challenges for individuals with dementia. Dirty, familiar clothes may be more comforting and comfortable than a freshly laundered set. They can be overwhelmed by choices, and choose inappropriate clothing (for example, wearing sweaters and long pants during the heat of summer). They may become fixated on one set of clothing and become anxious if it needs washed.
- Tips for making dressing easier: Make things easy for your loved one by laying out clothes in the order in which they should be put on. Prompt them as necessary. Put away seasonally inappropriate clothes and pare down the options in the closet to be more manageable. You may wish to consider purchasing several of the same item if your loved one gravitates to one outfit in particular. Choose comfortable, easy-to-put-on clothes to make it easier to get dressed.
Brushing one’s teeth, clipping nails, shaving and maintaining a hair style can be a challenge for a loved one who can’t remember the steps, is overwhelmed by the amount of “stuff” needed to complete the task or simply can’t do it the way they used to. When we look good, we usually feel better, so remember that being “put together” is still very important for your loved one.
- Mouth care tips: Show your loved one how to brush her teeth by going step-by-step. It’s possible your loved one remembers how to brush but can’t put the toothpaste on. Allow her to do as much as possible, with you guiding the way when necessary. Incorporate brushing or rinsing mouths into your daily routine.
- Hair tips: Consider having your loved one’s hair cut into a shorter style that’s easier to manage. If getting to the salon is difficult, look for a stylist who’s willing to come to your home. If your loved one is having trouble with the brush, guide her hand until she gets into the rhythm.
- General tips: Use an electric razor for men (it’s less likely to cut skin), and if makeup will make your mother feel more ‘normal,’ encourage her to do so. Be sure nails are kept short and trimmed at all times, including toenails.
Tips for Reducing Hygiene and Grooming Challenges
Sometimes, even though you’re doing everything right, you may come to an impasse with your loved one with dementia. If that’s the case, here are some tips for helping reduce the anxiety and getting you both on the same page.
- Blame the doctor. Many seniors will follow “doctor’s orders,” so have your physician write orders for tasks like bathing every other day or brushing teeth after eating.
- Visit a specialist. Doctors who have experience dealing with geriatric issues can help provide necessary assistance in a calming way.
- Show, don’t tell. Modeling what you’re asking your loved one to do can help make the task seem less scary and easier to do. For example, brush your teeth alongside your loved one and chat about how nice it feels to have a clean mouth.
- Make it routine. Routines are very important for individuals with dementia, and adding grooming and hygiene into the daily tasks can help avoid conflict.
- Be flexible and remain positive. Sometimes, you just have to take a deep breath, take a step back and try again some other time. Don’t get upset and be kind and patient to your loved one. Yes, staying clean and groomed is important, but so is maintaining a good quality of well-being for you and your loved one.
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Offering Assisted Living, Enhanced Assisted Living, Memory Care, Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation, The Reutlinger Community provides a continuum of care that allows seniors to live a life-enhancing and stimulating environment. Located in Danville, California, The Reutlinger Community’s newly renovated, 110,000 square foot community combines the comfort and familiarity of home with seasoned senior care and skilled nursing specialists to suit any seniors needs, allowing them to live the life they choose with freedom and security.
Because we specialize in a continuum of care, our residents never need to worry about leaving the community they call home or wonder what will happen when they need some more care. Residents and families alike can have peace of mind knowing that there are full-time licensed nurses available, along with activity coordinators, social workers, caregivers, a concierge and Rabbi who focus solely on helping each resident thrive. Even better, our services and amenities are equal to those of a state-of-the-art resort. This is the lifestyle and care that your loved one deserves.
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